Performance Improvement Plans: What You Need to Know

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a PIP, look out -- it could be the first step in the firing process.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Missouri School of Law

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a performance improvement plan (PIP), look out -- it could be the first step in the firing process.

It sounds like such a positive, constructive approach: Give an employee with performance deficiencies a plan to become a more successful and valued contributor.

Unfortunately, PIPs are more often used to create a paper trail in preparation for a termination. For employers, it's important to document an employee's poor performance before firing them to limit the risk of wrongful termination and discrimination claims.

Read on for more about PIPs, including when they're used, what they contain, and how to respond if your employer puts you on one.

What Is a Performance Improvement Plan?

A performance improvement plan is a formal document or process used by employers to address an employee's performance issues or behaviors that are not meeting the expected standards or requirements. A PIP is typically used as a last resort after other forms of corrective action, such as informal feedback or coaching, have been taken.

In most cases a PIP document will address topics such as:

  • specific areas where the employee needs to improve
  • steps the employee must take to improve
  • goals that need to be achieved
  • the timeframe for improvement, and
  • the consequences if the employee fails to meet the expectations outlined in the plan.

The PIP typically begins with a meeting between the employee and their supervisor to discuss the issues and agree on the plan. The plan may also include regular check-ins to monitor progress and adjust the plan as needed.

What to Do If You're Placed on a Performance Improvement Plan

A vanishingly small proportion of PIPs are actually intended to improve performance. In truth, most are the start (or continuation) of a paper trail leading to termination.

If you don't believe a PIP is warranted, or you disagree with its terms, you must protest. And, for the protest to be effective, it needs to be communicated to others, in writing.

How To Protest a PIP

If the facts supporting the negative evaluation are false, the PIP sets goals that you cannot achieve, or the motive of the manager is inappropriate, you'll need to set the record straight.

Objectively, concisely, and truthfully, you need to put the employer on notice that what's been proposed to you is inconsistent with the accepted employment practice at your company, the law, or specific promises that have been made to you.

You need to do this correctly, and you may well need help putting it together, perhaps from an experienced employment attorney or business coach. If you believe the motive for the PIP is unethical or unlawful bias of the manager, then you may also need assistance to report or document these events somewhere outside the company. Realistically, you'll get one opportunity to protest, so you need to make it count.

Should You Refuse to Sign a PIP?

Refusing to sign a PIP can be interpreted as insubordination or a voluntary quit. It is a better approach to sign under protest, adding a line that contains some version of the following:

  • I disagree with the content.
  • I protest the PIP.
  • My signature indicates only that I have received this document, not that I agree with it.
  • I intend to prepare a formal response.

Can Protesting a Performance Improvement Plan Really Work?

The good news is that effective protests against a PIP can work. Possible outcomes might include:

  • reassignment to a different manager or job
  • manager subject to retraining
  • an internal investigation
  • an EEOC investigation, or
  • negotiation of a mutual separation agreement, with substantial transition benefits for the employee.

The point is, any of these alternatives is probably a better outcome than you will get simply by playing along with a PIP and staying silent.

Should You Quit After Receiving a PIP?

Quitting is almost always the worst response to a PIP. In addition to losing your income, you could be compromising your potential legal claims and disqualifying yourself from unemployment benefits.

Contact an Employment Attorney

Whether or not you've been placed on a PIP before being fired, you might still have a claim for wrongful termination against your employer. Contact an experienced employment lawyer to discuss your legal options.

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